The good of evil: gaming’s unique use of villain protagonists

The story of good overcoming evil is a tale that’s, for lack of a better word, fundamental. While the concept of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is a little abstract (and often something that is formed by the personal view of the beholder), the idea that good should ultimately defeat evil is a tried and true part of story telling the world over. And honestly, why wouldn’t it be? Stories of plucky heroes defeating looming villains, legends of characters saving the world, adventures to surmount the odds and come out victorious; all these things are just bloody good fun. And while it might be an optimistic type of view, I half believe that these stories are popular because it just feels good to believe that the determination and efforts of the few can actually have such sweeping benefits for the many. In short, being good feels good, and the fact that stories of such endeavours are nearly as old as humanity probably proves their popularity. Games are no different, of course. What better motivation to give to the player than to defeat an evil git; with the promise of wiping the smug grin off a villain’s face while also saving the world, most games don’t need much more justification.

That all being said, what if we looked at it from the opposite view? When we stop to think about it, there has to be a reason people act in ways that are traditionally evil, especially if they outright acknowledge that what they’re doing is morally black. Maybe the lure of power is too great to resist, or maybe their definition of evil leans more towards ‘the ends justifies the means.’ Could there be a justification for evil actions that is strong enough that even the audience can see where the villain is coming from? Better yet, what if the villain was actually the protagonist, the centre character in a story and the most likely character to root for?

This is hardly a new concept: while the idea of good defeating evil is almost as old as story telling itself, the idea that evil isn’t entirely without merit is not too much younger. For a relatively recent example, ‘Paradise Lost’ is just over four hundred years old (I did say ‘relatively’), and Satan is pretty much the main character for most of it. While most of the work is dedicated to showing that Satan is kind of a pathetic and petty prick, it’s hard to get away from the fact that the biggest villain in the entire Christian religion was the protagonist for most of the ride, and he is intentionally written to be quite well spoken. If someone can actually make the ultimate being of evil be kind of likable and (at a stretch) understandable, than all bets are off.

Gaming has a kind of unique spin on this idea. While other mediums have to justify why the audience can still root for a character that is ultimately evil, gaming has an even more specific job of justifying a player to act evil. Playing a game isn’t a passive experience; it’s one where the player has a direct impact on events moving forward, and thus you need to give a pretty solid reason for players to act in a certain way. While getting the player to act in a traditionally good fashion has its own problems, trying to have them act in an evil fashion while still justifying those actions can cause a number of issues.

For the sake of readability, let’s first break this down into advantages and disadvantages.

One of the biggest advantages is that having the player take control of what would classically be called a villainous character allows a game to have a much more off-beat and often unique approaches to stories. When the main character is already established to be morally bankrupt, you have a lot more lee-way in what kind of stuff you can put them through. The GTA series is a good example of this: they often have an extensive list of criminal characters that you’ll have to meet (and often kill) over the game, in often morally questionable missions. The gaming platform means they have enough hours to them that they can really explore multiple facets of whatever criminal empire they’re focusing on during the game, and the often weird world they occupy. This is without mentioning the established ideas of video games tend to give them twists to regular formulas such as the fact that you can actually get away with giving the criminal main characters an ending where they don’t get their comeuppance. Seriously, in any other piece of media Tommy from Vice City would have been killed at the end of the story (much like Tony Montana from Scarface, the character he’s pretty heavily based on). Instead, since he has the grace of being the player character, he actually basically wins it all and gets to live despite all of the crimes he committed across the course of the game.

Another point to consider is the fact that being able to play as the villain does come with a natural kind of power fantasy. In many ways all video games are power fantasy, such as the idea of being a neigh unstoppable solider in Call of Duty or being the guy who slapped god-beings to death with a sword in Dark Souls, but having a villain protagonist does allow you to have a very particular type of power fantasy. Namely, it allows you to get away with being the biggest douche in the world. Take the Overlord games: you play as a towering, eight foot self-proclaimed evil lord who can mercilessly cut down all who would oppose him, slaughter innocents just for the giggles, will eventually take over the entire world, and who has a jester whose sole job is to be a target for the bottom of your boot. And the game more or less encourages you to be as maniacal as you want while going out of its way to make sure you feel like biggest OG that conquered the land. In an odd way, I’m kind of reminded of when we talked about horror games. Half of the point is that you get to experience something that we don’t get to really experience in our day-to-day lives in a controlled environment where there are no consequences. But instead of feeling the adrenaline of being scared by something, it allows you to act in a manner that would be wholly unacceptable in normal society in  ways that doesn’t have any downsides…unless you feel guilty about your actions, in which case I guess there are pretty dire downsides.

Naturally, we do have to consider the opposite side of the equation, namely the disadvantages.

One of the bigger disadvantages is probably that making the main character fill naturally villainous roles can lead to making the character more difficult to root for, if not outright unlikeable. Going back to the GTA example, while GTA V’s lead characters were definitely an entertaining bunch, they were also a group I kind of struggled to appreciate (which is pretty odd since I remember Tommy was more likeable despite being just as big of a murderous psycho). Sure, the chaos Trevor spreads is entertainingly bizarre, sure it’s only natural that Michael is going to have angst over his mid-life crisis, and sure Franklin’s desire to get out of hood is understandable. But while I was playing, I kind noticed that I really wasn’t really getting invested in their subplots, since it’s hard to feel sympathetic or to root for them when their often various robberies and murders often end up making their situations worse, not better. I think it’s easier to give characters who are at least trying to be ultimately good some lee-way, since their good intentions at least come off as selfless and trying to improve a situation. Meanwhile, a morally bankrupt character might struggle more since their actions will ultimately come off as selfish and self-serving, and thus it’s harder to justify why the audience should care what happens to the character. These problems are likewise intensified in a video game, since it’s not just a matter of having to spend hours with the character, but the fact that they’re also your means of interacting with the world. It leaves a sour taste on the mouth when the only character you have under your control is also a character that you can’t stand to be on screen.

Another big issue is that, despite being referred to as villainous protagonists, they sometimes struggle to actually reach a level where the ‘villain’ part is relevant. Going back to the Overlord example, while you are a dark lord commanding an army of monsters known only as ‘Minions,’ you are often pitted against beings that are somehow worse than you. In the first game in the series, your main enemies are seven fallen heroes who have come to embody the seven deadly sins themselves, and are so thoroughly evil that they make you look positively like a saint in comparison. This is done for obvious reasons, the biggest one being to avoid the first disadvantage: if an evil character goes against an even eviler character, than it’s pretty easy to justify their actions, and why the player should continue to root for them. While that makes sense, it does raise a question of what entirely is the point of making the main character ‘evil.’ If we’re going to be outshined in the villainy department and do what a standard hero would do anyway, than why the heck are we bothering to put forth this ‘villain’ protagonist thing? This isn’t always a straight issue, since there can be a sense of dark comedy about the fact that the closest thing to a force for good in the world is an asshole who’s almost as bad as the evil he’s trying to stop, but the disadvantage persists. This problem can be kind of aggregative in video games, especially if the game is trying to give you an illusion of choice: no matter how bad you want to act out, you’re pretty much stuck as second fiddle to the antagonist.

To kind of wrap it up, while the advantages and disadvantages to having a villain protagonist as a main lead in a game are often very similar to many other types of media, the nature of a video game being interactive has noticeable effect. It changes the nature of the story, since taking direct control of a character creates a more direct connection between that character and the player. This is why characters like Tommy from Vice City or the Overlord from the game of the same name ultimately get everything they want: because if the developers pulled the rug out from under the characters, they would ultimately be doing the same thing to the players that were controlling them, which wouldn’t make as rewarding an ending. While narratives in video games are continuing to grow in importance as time goes on, I think there’s still a clear point where games are willing to sacrifice some narrative complexity so that the player can still feel like they’ve actually won something. This is perfectly understandable, and since games will pretty much always be about overcoming some kind of obstacle, probably a good idea in most cases.

As with anything, these kind of points are going to be reliant on how they are actually implemented, and if the game is built to support them. Villain protagonists can fall into many of the same pitfalls as normal kinds of protagonists, such as needing understandable motives and actually being enjoyable to watch, which rely entirely on the ability of the writer. Likewise, video games need to be built to be able to support a player’s actions within the context of a villain protagonist being the lead, such as GTA giving not too punishing consequence to the player when running over random pedestrians (a common occurrence if you drive like me). Most of all, at least in my mind, the game needs to know how to have fun with the concept: there’s a ton of games where you play as straight up heroes, so we might as well go full ball into the kind of out there gameplay conventions that playing as a villain can bring to the table.

In any case, this was just a very small look at the consequences that having a morally bankrupt character as the lead can bring. I’d be fascinated in hearing what your guys take on this kind of design brings to the table, and what your favourite examples of villainous protagonists are. Thanks for stopping by, once again apologies for the recent delays, and see you next time (where, if everything pans out, we should have a new review coming up).

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